AN OVERVIEW OF THE FREELANCE SCENE TODAY

08 November 2006
Barbara Gordon
Barbara Gordon

In order for a freelancer to survive and prosper, a clear picture of the business climate is necessary to plan marketing and selling strategies. Let me start by giving you my views and impressions of what's going on in the freelance marketplace today.

Before the horrific events of 9/11, the advertising and publishing industries were showing signs of weakening and the forecasters were predicting, if not a recession, a declining economy in the fall of 2001. I don t have to tell anyone that 9/11 stopped everything in its tracks. In all of my years in repping, I cannot remember a time where the phone did not ring with prospective clients, but only with people checking on my safety and well being. In Manhattan, business was the furthest thought in anyone s mind for some time. As people started to readjust and return to near normalcy, the predictions for advertising and publishing were bad and some were even predicting a decline in ad expenditures as low as those during the depression. Because of this decline, the layoffs started and escalated in both the advertising and publishing industries. Clients were not making huge commitments in such uncertain times,and because funds dried up, magazines got thinner and many, including ones that had been with us for decades, folded.

Dot-coms had started to fall like leaves in early autumn, and 9/11 only seemed to accelerate that. In fact,one of the newspapers in New York had a column called "Dead Dot-com of the Week" and they never missed a week. I was inundated with calls from freelancers looking for a rep, a sure sign that business is bad. I've been through recessions, they are part of the business,however this was different. For the first time that I can recollect,agencies were being swallowed and acquired by huge corporate conglomerates, in such a quick and unrelenting manner, that today it feels as if four major corporations control the entire ad industry.

These acquired shops seem as though they are no longer being run as creative enterprises,but as large businesses interested in their own profits. For someone like me, who had the enriching experience of working with some of the industry s major titans whose names were on the door, but who always had hands-on involvement in the creative process dealing with these conglomerates is a different experience. I used to think that advertising was there for the purpose of selling the clients products and services by using the talents of the creative people in the agencies I don t get that feeling in today s situation.

Then there's the "stock" situation.. As I am sure you re aware, where an art director or creative director would commission a unique piece of art or photography for the exclusive marketing use of a client,now it is common for that same creative to look through a catalog and just pick a piece. I don't condemn stock, in some situations it works quite well.From a freelancer's point of view, it is a financial disaster. For example: there are four clients that I have dealt with personally in the literary area who used to commission original art and photography at fees ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 per assignment. Now they use only stock at a range of $100 to $300. While this may sound like a boon to the stock artist or photographer,it isn't because once the piece has been sold in the low price range,it runs the danger of being categorized as "low end" and that can limit the earning potential. In addition,with the many layoffs that occurred in the advertising and publishing fields, the freelance field has been flooded with more people trying to make up for lost incomes. September 11 also made a lot of people rethink their priorities on life and work, and some took the plunge becoming artists, photographers, designers. In a nut shell, that's the freelance marketplace today not the usual up-down-boom-recession cyclical market that we ve become used to throughout the years.

Bleak? Could be. Are people making money? Some people are making lots of money; even in the crash of 1929, people were making money. But on a more universal level, I'm seeing a lot of freelancers who are not making the money they used to because of the shrinking number of prospective clients that conglomerization has endangered,the increased use of stock and the increasing number of freelancers competing for a decreasing number of jobs and creativity taking a backseat to economics and expediency.

Do I have any answers? Not quick ones. Do I have any advice? My immediate response is not to panic, hold on, we are in a time of reevaluation. There are always opportunities in any great changes that take place, and freelance is undergoing a major change. As a freelancer, I am starting to investigate how other freelancers and entrepreneurs are dealing with, and succeeding in, our changing marketplace. I'll share that information with you in future columns. Some of the information will invigorate you, some will depress you, but I'll close with a quote someone made to me years ago when I started in this business: "To succeed in the freelance business, you have to know what you want and what you are willing to give up to get it." I look forward to exploring this equation with you.



About this article
This article first appeared in the Communication Arts magazine.